The Collapse of The Bristol Channel Fisheries: An Early Victim of the Rush to MSY

20th October 2014 in Celtic Sea, TACs and Quotas

The commercial fisheries in the Bristol face imminent closure. This is not because of any crisis in the stocks, or irresponsible levels of fishing, but directly because an environmentalist political agenda has been incorporated into the CFP mainstream, which demands that quotas are cut to achieve maximum sustainable yield by 2015. As the legal and political commitment to the MSY timetable progressively bites, further casualties can be expected.

The Collapse of The Bristol Channel Fisheries: An Early Victim of the Rush to MSY

A series of TAC decisions set on achieving MSY by 2015 have resulted in a dramatic reduction in landings which have made the quotas unmanageable and led directly to the closure of the main local fish processor for the Bristol Channel; other fish buyers/processors will struggle badly. The cuts also look like triggering the demise of the local fishermen’s association, one of the most active and progressive in the country.

Those boats which can move away have been displaced out of the Bristol Channel to fish from south Devon, where the additional fishing pressure will not be welcome; the other vessels, which cannot move because of their limited range, are now clinging to a very precarious existence. This is a local level catastrophe which may be repeated many times over the next few years unless ministers take a different tack from the current policy towards MSY.

It is almost impossible to understand, and certainly impossible to explain to the fishermen involved, why against the background of generally stable or increasing stock levels, and an overall reduction in fishing pressure, this self-inflicted policy is being applied. It is particularly tough in the Bristol Channel where the industry have taken a number of ground breaking initiatives to protect their local stock.

The main commercial species on which the local Bristol Channel boats mainly depend, have now either been closed down prematurely, or have been restricted to unviable levels. The main policy driver behind this series of management decisions has been the push to reach maximum sustainable yield by the mandatory but arbitrary 2015 deadline. The final nail in the coffin has been the closure of the Area VII skates and rays fishery to all UK fishing vessels. The destroyed businesses and disrupted lives are the real cost of a dogmatic adherence to MSY now at any cost.

The Elements of the Crisis

The Bristol Channel fleets have been dependent on five specific TAC stocks. This year, one after another, each has been denied to the local fleets:

• Sole: the UK sole fishery in the Bristol Channel was closed in June due to exhaustion of the UK quota

• Skates and Rays: the early exhaustion of the UK’s allocation in October is driven by the very low TAC set at the December Council in conformity with MSY by 2015. The North Devon Fishermen’s Association has been at the forefront of introducing voluntary measures (a higher minimum landing size and closed nursery area. Although some of the 9 ray species caught in the commercial fishery have a poor conservation status, the species that fished by the Bristol Channel fleet [mainly blond ray] are stable. Annual landings of ray caught by the local fleet in the Bristol Channel have varied by less than 3% over the last 7 years.

• Cod: UK Cod quotas in Area VII suffer from a low TAC and low national share of the TAC. This results in very low monthly catch limits for most UK vessels fishing in the Bristol Channel

• Plaice: Very low restrictive quotas

• Spurdog: The zero TAC for spurdog means that dead dogfish have to be discarded bringing no economic benefit and not much if any conservation benefit.

Taken together, these restrictions on the basket of stocks on which they depend have pushed the boats in the Bristol Channel below the threshold for economic viability.

High Yield Fisheries

It would be difficulty to find a fisherman who would argue against the notion of a progressive step-wise approach to high-yield fisheries. The problem is that the scientific concept of maximum sustainable yield, which was developed in the 1970s for single stock fisheries, has been hijacked by a range of well-funded and politically powerful NGOs along with an authoritarian Commissioner, as short-cut, to “ending overfishing.” In this terminology “overfishing” is defined as any stock not fished at maximum (not minimum, mind) sustainable yield, and has been tied to a demanding mandatory timetable. This is what is driving the very extreme quota cuts currently being proposed by the European Commission. Some fisheries are facing 65% reductions for 2015. And this is also why the Bristol Channel is not likely to be an isolated exception.

The number of fish of any given species, in any given year, will be dictated by three main factors: fishing, natural deaths and recruitment (births). Fishing mortality across the North East Atlantic fisheries has been cut dramatically (by around 50%) since the year 2000. EU stocks generally outside the Mediterranean are rebuilding steadily, some rapidly, some more slowly. The speed of rebuilding is now mainly a function of recruitment and we have no control (or even much knowledge) about the factors that drive recruitment. And of course, the lower the fishing pressure, the higher will be the influence natural mortality (mainly predation). This requires a degree of patience. These are some of the reasons why a rigid and dogmatic approach to setting TACs in line with MSY is dangerous: dangerous for the wellbeing of fishermen, and dangerous for onshore fish workers and fishing communities. The Bristol Channel fisheries are suffering directly as a result of dogma put into practice.

Escape Routes

It may be too late for the fishermen in the Bristol Channel whose fate has been sealed by distant politicians and officials, but it is not too late to prevent a repeat for other fisheries.

The CFP legislation does allow for exceptions can be made for socio-economic reasons to allow for the achievement of MSY later than 2015, if ministers to exercise that option.

There are perfectly rational reasons, based on sound fisheries management principles, why it may not make sense to set TACs at the MSY level. These include:

• Mixed fisheries considerations

• Discard reduction

• Socio-economic concerns

The question is not whether such a departure is permitted (it is); the question is whether ministers (especially in an election year) can afford to be branded by NGOs with generous funding and powerful allies in the press, as the “the minister who failed to take the opportunity to end-overfishing.” Senior politicians have repeatedly stated their support for rural coastal communities but the harsh reality is that the level of commitment seems to slip away when push comes to shove.

Ministers therefore find themselves in an unenviable position: cut quotas in line with MSY and face the certainty that the experience of the Bristol Channel will be visited on other fishing communities; or face criticism from the NGOs that they have again “surrendered to the power of the fishing lobby.”


There is one unknown in this equation: the character and predispositions of the new Maltese Commissioner Karmenu Vella. His predecessor was the prime architect of the dogmatic approach to MSY, the consequences of which we see in the Bristol Channel today. A more pragmatic Commissioner could ease the way to a more balanced approach which would secure the jobs of fishermen and shore workers, without surrendering steady and incremental movement to the broad goal of high yield fisheries.